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Christiaan Van Heijst Shows Us the Amazing World from Above

Christiaan Van Heijst Shows Us the Amazing World from Above

“I just look at what the universe presents to me and do my best to capture,” says Boeing 747 captain and high-flying photographer Christiaan van Heijst. Flying since the age of 14, his job takes him around the world, opening up his camera to various sights. He tells us how he skillfully takes photos while flying some of the most giant commercial airplanes in the world.

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Aviation and photography. I’ve been passionate about these two topics since my early childhood, having been born into a household that was skilled in both. While aviation has taken a backseat as far as work is concerned, it’s still a topic I look into almost daily. The days when I’d fly the skies with a camera are realistically still some years away. I keep up with the latest trends in the aviation world and enjoy seeing the work of other aviation photographers. Many of them, like Christiaan, give a unique perspective of the wonderfully close-knit global aviation community network. For every aircraft you see in the sky, hundreds of invisible hands led to its successful journey across seas and borders. And through the eyes of some fortunate people like Christiaan, those of us on the ground get to see magical visuals.

The Essential Photo Gear Used by Christiaan van Heijst

Christiaan told us:

“All cockpit windows are layered and thick, preventing sharp images when zooming more than roughly 50mm, so I’m restricted to wide-angle lenses mostly.”

The Phoblographer: Hi Christiaan. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.

Christiaan van Heijst: Many thanks for inviting me for this interview; it’s a real pleasure to talk with you through these questions.

I was born and raised in the Netherlands; 39 years old and currently Captain on the Boeing 747. Ever since I was a very young boy, I was captivated by the views I saw through the window when I flew as a passenger. These views and experiences have greatly influenced the rest of my life, eventually propelling me into aviation and photography. I remember I was so taken away by the unbelievable views and total experience of being up there, so high from the planet. I still feel that same sense of wonder while flying after all these years.

Ever since my flights as a student pilot, I decided to carry a camera with me to document those incredible views and sceneries, hoping to share the unbelievable natural beauty I see from the cockpit on my flights. This resulted in a parallel career to flying, without me even realizing it at the time. Flying and photography are a natural combination for me, and I’m glad to see an ever-growing audience is appreciating those same views with me as well, as I am convinced that more people should be seeing the world from that elevated perspective, showing the unbelievable beauty that transcends borders, countries, ideologies, and beliefs. Views of a planet we all share and scenes that -hopefully- inspire people to look beyond our petty differences.

The Phoblographer: How long have you been flying? What was the day when you decided it would be nice to photograph while you’re up there?

Christiaan van Heijst: I started glider flying at the age of 14, the minimum legal age to start flying lessons in the Netherlands, and moved to motorized flying at the age of 17. I obtained my private pilot license even before I got my driver’s license, and this is how I started my long career in aviation. I studied aeronautical engineering for a few years but decided to go pursue my dream and follow professional pilot training instead after all.

My first professional pilot job was as a copilot on the Fokker 50 turboprop for a company that specialized in leasing out their aircraft (including crew) to other companies. This quickly saw me flying all over Europe for various African airlines and military contract work in Afghanistan. Especially the adventures in Africa and Afghanistan were a major reason for me to carry a camera with me since I understood immediately that what I saw and experienced there was literally unique. I simply had to document it all because no one else would or could. Little did I know that this would turn out to be the start of a whole new career with plenty of challenges, setbacks, and occasional amazing highlights.

Overflying the Italian Alps during a clear winter day

The Phoblographer: Cockpit shots are something a lot of pilots take but, aside from those, your other photos are quite cinematic in nature. Where did you develop an eye for such wonderful scenes?

Christiaan van Heijst: Thank you for your kind words; that is really nice to hear and a big compliment. I’m not quite sure what you mean with cinematic, but I always try to shoot subjects as part of a larger scene. Using clouds, lines, the horizon, or even the location of the moon to be part of a composition that gives depth and deeper meaning to an otherwise relatively simple image.

I never took any courses in photography or other creative arts. I just follow my intuition and sense of the moment.

Final runway 25R in Hong Kong

The Phoblographer: Flying at night, with hardly any light around – how technically challenging is it to get a shot that isn’t blurry but also well exposed?

Christiaan van Heijst: The low-light, long-exposure shots are the most challenging of all, and I slowly mastered them after years of experimenting. Such long exposure shots come with a couple of challenges like airplane movement, turbulence, camera position, window reflections, and of course, having the right equipment.

Needless to say, I can only take those images when the airplane is flying in smooth air with no turbulence or turns. Next, I have to manage to stabilize the camera by placing it in a way it cannot move too easily, so I often place it in front of me on the glare shield and with the lens opening directly against the window. Because there is no room for a tripod in the cockpit, I often use anything at hand to elevate and stabilize the camera lens at least a little bit to allow for a clear shot. Dimming the lights in the cockpit as much as practical prevents reflections, though they are not always totally preventable. Another major factor is having the right equipment: a camera capable of handling very high sensor sensitivity combined with a very light-sensitive lens, preferably f2.8 or better.

Using wide-angle lenses also helps since it captures a huge part of the sky and the minor movements of the stars are nearly invisible in the end result.

Sunrise and veils of aurora borealis (northern lights) over northern Canada

The Phoblographer: It’s hard enough in many places to get a Milky Way shot from the ground. Could you tell us how this one was achieved while on the move?

Christiaan van Heijst: For shots of the Milky Way, I have to be kind of lucky as well with the route I’m flying. The Milky Way is only clearly visible from the Northern hemisphere for a couple of months in the year, so I’m pretty limited to that time frame. Fortunately, I do fly across the Atlantic Ocean quite regularly, and this allows me to see and photograph it during the summer months quite often.

Some people are surprised the stars are so sharp as seen from a moving airplane, but please do keep in mind that the speed of the airplane relative to the stars is absolutely negligible since the stars are so far away. As long as the airplane doesn’t shake from turbulence, the stars are barely moving at all, even during 30-second exposures.

Since the cockpit is relatively small, there is simply no room for using tripods or other equipment. For long-exposure shots, I place the camera on the glare-shield (on top of the instrument panel) and against the front window. To stabilise the camera I often put anything that’s available under the lens. This can be a glasses case or tuna sandwich, whatever is at hand and available.

The Phoblographer: Do the airlines you work/have worked for have any concerns about your aerial photography? Is it pretty straightforward for you to go on board each time with cameras in your pilot case?

Christiaan van Heijst: My previous and current employers are very happy with my photography and even encourage me to keep on going as long as I do my work properly, of course. I never post anything that would damage the company or my profession, nor do I ever post anything political or remotely (religiously) sensitive, so it would never inflict any damage on the company brand. I intend to capture the beauty of the world whenever my work allows me, and fortunately my current employer makes great use of that online presence as well, working together in a very fruitful way.

Carrying camera equipment has never been an issue, but it requires some common sense when to take pictures and of course, when not.

Passing by a massive thunderstorm during sunset, somewhere over the Indian Ocean

The Phoblographer: Has there ever been a situation where your employer has asked to see some of the photos you’ve taken before you post them online?

Christiaan van Heijst: A couple of years ago, we flew a very special charter flight with eight elephants from a zoo in Tokyo, Japan, to a nature reserve in Vientiane, Laos, and eight other elephants back for an international breeding program. This was quite a complicated flight in many aspects, not in the least the loading and unloading of the animals on board the 747. Our cargo on board can be very sensitive since clients don’t always appreciate it when their freight is placed online, but in this case, my employer was very happy to see the operation through my photos.

Needless to say, I wanted to make sure my employer would agree to it before I would place those images online.

Another 747 is flying head-on, leaving a powerful contrail behind her that’s brightly painted by the setting sun.

The Phoblographer: Given that you’ve probably flown across the world, what have been some of your favorite photos taken from above, and why?

Christiaan van Heijst: I’m being asked that question quite often, and the answer is quite boring: there is not one single image that I consider my best or ‘favourite,’ simply because they are all parts of a larger image I want to convey, like parts of the puzzle that complete the whole.

In general, I do love flying over Afghanistan, and some of those images invoke the deepest emotions in me personally, just like some of the Northern Lights images I took while flying north of Alaska or Greenland. Seeing the aurora reflecting off the ice sheets in the Arctic sea while the curtains of green and turquoise lights were dancing above was nothing short of enchanting.

But even seeing the Netherlands, my small home country, from above is always a treat to the eye.

A long exposure shot over India with multiple shooting stars and a faint part of the milky way ahead.

The Phoblographer: You garner a lot of appreciation for your work, however have people ever contacted you asking if what you’re doing is safe for passengers?

Christiaan van Heijst: Yes, this is one of the most frequently asked questions, and I can honestly say I only take pictures when there is time and nothing else to do for me as a pilot. Flying the aircraft and the safety of the flight is always priority number one; anything else comes at a distant second.

Having said that, flying long-haul results in long hours during a cruise where not a lot is going on in the flight deck, giving me plenty of moments to quickly take a shot of two when time permits. It’s like driving a car: when you drive through a busy neighbourhood you are to keep your eyes on the road, but when driving on the highway, there is plenty of time to change the radio station. Same with flying: once on cruise and with the autopilot flying the airplane, there is time for the occasional photo.

Finding a path through stormy skies

And on top of that, we often fly with so-called heavy crews: three or even four pilots so each of us can take some in-flight rest. This rest period is also a great time to shoot some pictures and enjoy the scenery.

Maybe it’s also good to mention I am only flying cargo now; no passengers

An Airbus A330 passing by below, over a cloudy, winter Afghanistan

The Phoblographer: Do you plan ahead to take photos based on the flight paths you know you will be taking?

Christiaan van Heijst: One of the major setbacks of taking pictures from the air is that I have zero influence on the weather or views outside of my windows. When I’m scheduled for certain routes, I know that I can expect some specific sceneries, but I’m completely dependent on the weather en route and time of day at all times. That’s why I never plan any specific shots: I just look at what the universe presents to me and do my best to capture anything when it floats by, always ready for anything.

A thunderstorm at sunset, somewhere over central Kazakhstan

The Phoblographer: When you’re back on solid ground, I’m fairly certain you’re probably longing to go up in the air again. But down here on earth, what genres of photography do you enjoy doing the most?

Christiaan van Heijst: Funny enough, I barely ever take pictures when I’m home in the Netherlands, but I do take some photos in more exotic I visit once in a while. My photography is mainly focused on capturing the world from the cockpit and documenting my views once aloft.

But I love to capture scenes, people, and atmospheres once I travel abroad. I’ve taken extensive series of travel and impressionistic images in Iran, North Korea, Hong Kong, and India for example, but my focus will always be on aerial photography. And who knows; a whole universe of photographic opportunities is out there. The sky is not the limit.

Bright static discharges dancing around the windows while flying through heavily charged clouds: a harmless but beautiful phenomenon

All images by Christiaan van Heijst. Used with permission. Drop by his website as well as his Instagram and Facebook pages to see more of his photography

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